It all began as a humble idea in a Sydney primary school where Professor Robyn Ewing taught alongside K-6 teachers every Friday morning for more than 15 years.
A former primary teacher, she identified that drama’s processes had enormous potential to improve English and literacy education, but it was “often way down the pecking order” in a crowded curriculum. Many teachers did not feel confident or skilled in using it. Professor Ewing worked with teachers to enable them to use drama with literature and maximise its impact on English and literary education for primary school children.
Today, through a partnership with Sydney Theatre Company (STC), that idea has evolved into a unique program called School Drama, which has reimagined how the creative art forms of drama and literature can change children’s literacy learning and life opportunities.
School Drama is led by Professor Ewing, Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Sydney's School of Education and Social Work, and John Nicholas Saunders, the STC’s Education Manager and a PhD student in the school.
The original ‘School Drama Classic’ program pairs teaching artists – often professional actors – with teachers in classroom dynamic duos. For seven weeks they co-plan, co-mentor and co-teach drama to primary school students. Often teachers return to participate in ‘School Drama Hub’ twilight sessions to continue their learning.
It’s a reinvention of conventional artist-in-residence initiatives where the teaching is often one way – more of a fly-in, fly-out arrangement.
The teacher-artist team learns from each other and then translates those learnings into smarter teaching of drama grounded in quality literature. In turn their tandem teaching enhances students’ spoken language skills, description, imaginative writing and their ability to understand the deeper meanings behind texts.
“Using School Drama as a creative teaching and learning pedagogy really improves students’ social and emotional wellbeing and it improves their confidence,” Professor Ewing says.
School Drama began in five primary schools in 2009 as the brainchild of Professor Ewing and the visionary former artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett. They created the legacy of an ongoing education partnership that includes funding from the STC Foundation, which subsidises the work in schools.
The program has already reached more than 27,000 students and teachers across Australia. This success story reinforces the reams of research findings that position drama as a powerful teaching and learning strategy across the curriculum.
Next year School Drama will reach every state and territory in Australia as it extends into Tasmanian schools, and it will also commence its international presence in Auckland, New Zealand.
The program can easily be adapted to the needs of many different learning communities and contexts. It recently expanded into secondary schools for students who have English as an additional language or dialect and with history students. Juvenile justice centres in New South Wales are using it to support English and literacy education and adults are starting to benefit too, with migrants and refugees, initially in Sydney, using the program to develop their English.
“New Zealand is only the starting point for School Drama’s international expansion,” Professor Ewing adds. “If other countries show interest it can be tailored for their contexts.”
The program is a prime example of embedding the arts creatively in children’s learning, in new and unique ways, to make an enduring impact on English and literacy, across Australia and beyond.